October 08, 2011

A Mario Savio for Modern Times


That is one bright young man. Whether everyone he speaks for realizes it or not, he has found the Gordian knots which must be cut.

October 06, 2011

Occupying Wall Street

It seems to me that a movement such as Occupy Wall Street is long overdue and was inevitable once it became apparent that the previous, within-the-system approach, electing Barack Obama, was a total bust. If for no other reason, Obama's presidency has at least served the salutary purpose of demonstrating just how fundamentally broken the regular political system has become. As for the usual sneering, dismissive comments by the standard members of the commentariat, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, many others, it won't matter in the long run, because a movement such as OWS is also about the completely broken system of corporate-owned media and message control involved in the "Manufactured Consent" of which Noam Chomsky has written so many times. (Generally speaking, if you're trying to decide on the bona fides of an argument about how the American political system works, and Noam Chomsky is on one side and Ann Coulter is on the other, go with Noam.)

What guarantees the longevity and durability of such a movement is that the conditions which produce it, a moribund economy and a completely unresponsive, bought-and-paid-for government, are not going away within any relevant time horizon. Things, in fact, are likely to get considerably worse as it becomes increasingly obvious that the strains imposed by the retiring Baby Boom population on the "Entitlements" (I should probably refer to them as the "aspiring retirees," because I don't think they're going to be at leisure very long) are going to make Social Security and Medicare something we used to be "entitled to," but are no longer affordable. This is basically the morality play unspooling in the European socialist democracies even now. I along with most Americans used to marvel at their wonderful system of lengthy vacation, full medical care, paternity and maternity leave, pensions, early retirement and the rest, but it seems that Europe, after integrating itself along United States lines, then plunged full speed ahead into economic globalization, just as we did, and now their whole socialist paradise is falling apart, and for the same reasons. If the world's economic water is seeking its own level, that level is not a Greek civil servant retiring at 52 on full salary and lifelong free medical care. It's somewhere between that and a Chinese factory worker making running shoes and four dollars a day. There, as here, the arbitrage of labor made a lot of plutocrats rich while impoverishing and/or destroying the middle classes.

As in the case of the United States, Europe sustained the illusion of prosperity at the same standard as before for several decades after globalization was in full swing by means of debt, at both the private and sovereign level. Now they're where we are, with economies struggling with sky-high energy costs (much higher there, in fact) under conditions of debt saturation.

Nevertheless, the central bankers and politicians there sound like the Federal Reserve and politicians here, armed with a full panoply of indecipherable acronyms, all of which seem to run afoul of the Complexity Principle, that as things get integrated at higher and higher levels, with ever more Byzantine details and moving parts, that the complexity itself begins to exact a terrible price on the efficient functioning of the system, and, what is even worse, failure correlation is built into the system so that when it goes, the whole thing goes down. As happened in the United States when the process of mortgage securitization had the effect of correlating the entire, nationwide housing market.

At this point the Democrat vs. Republican scenario only has relevance for those in the media who make their living by drawing specious distinctions between the two. The Good Guys versus Bad Guys shtick works well if you're Bill Maher or Randi Rhodes, on the Demo side, or Rush Limbaugh or the Red State blog on the other. By couching everything in terms of thesis and antithesis, as if these two parties represented opposing "philosophies" or fundamentally different visions of the "way forward," the celebrity members of the Commentariat can make a nice buck. It makes a good story line because it meets the dramatic requirement of conflict in the narrative. Thus, Randi Rhodes and Bill Maher can cluck a little about Barack Obama's record on civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, which is probably the worst record of any American president in history, while still vindicating their man because the Republicans, if they were in power, would be much, much worse. (Does that mean when they assassinated American citizens without a trial or due process of any kind, they would kill them twice?)

My guess is that the typical, young demonstrators involved in the nationwide OWS movement understand these things at variable levels of sophistication. They're on the street because there is really no other place to be to make the point. They tried sending (as I did) Barack Obama twenty-five bucks every couple of weeks back in 2008, and this is where we are: with a Democratic Party competing for the affections of the banking and defense contracting industries, with wars proliferating all over the globe, with no energy policy, and with lobbyists crawling all over the politicians like fleas, with money utterly controlling the political process on both sides of the aisle, and with no accountability of any kind asserted against the criminal financial class who profited by the economy's destruction.

Thus, with regard to Occupy Wall Street: more power to them.

UPDATE: I came across this after I wrote the above, a quote from an International Monetary Fund advisor named Robert Shapiro: "If they can not address [the financial crisis] in a credible way I believe within perhaps 2 to 3 weeks we will have a meltdown in sovereign debt which will produce a meltdown across the European banking system. We are not just talking about a relatively small Belgian bank, we are talking about the largest banks in the world, the largest banks in Germany, the largest banks in France, that will spread to the United Kingdom, it will spread everywhere because the global financial system is so interconnected. All those banks are counterparties to every significant bank in the United States, and in Britain, and in Japan, and around the world. This would be a crisis that would be in my view more serious than the crisis in 2008...."

Do you ever wonder what it was we gained by all this complexity and correlation?

October 03, 2011

Notes & Addenda on Subjective Due Process

Being older has some definite disadvantages, which I feel acutely every morning on attempting to arise to a new day. On the other hand, it does give you historical perspective, and I was wondering to myself, what is so different now versus the Watergate era in terms of responding to frankly unconstitutional acts at the highest level of government in the United States? The answer, I think, is fairly obvious: there is no longer any institutional integrity in Washington, D.C.

With regard to two separate episodes in recent history, the war in Libya and the targeted assassinations of two American citizens a few days ago, and before that the systematic violations of the FISA statute and the Fourth Amendment by the Bush Administration (and we may as well throw in the White House-sanctioned violations of the Eighth Amendment and the Convention Against Torture while we're at it): what you can say about all these events is basically the same thing: (1) everyone very readily agrees that the actions taken by the President were or are illegal and/or unconstitutional; and (2) Congress never does anything about it.

Realistically, each of the illegal actions described above dwarfs by an order of magnitude the actual crimes committed during the Watergate burglary, including the Watergate coverup actions (the illegal spying scandal, the Valerie Plame matter and the torture regime also had very extensive coverup aspects attached to the scandals, at least as involved and criminal as Watergate's coverup).

I think it's instructive that former Senator Russ Feingold attempted to bring a censure motion against President Bush arising fom the illegal spying matter, but he got nowhere and attracted very little support from his own party, in fact. Then he lost his reelection bid in 2010. I'm sure such facts are not lost on the craven souls who inhabit the Congress today; what's in it for me to be a hero? Still, this does not explain the institutional lethargy or passivity in the face of criminality, since if the Congress acted as a body there would be protection in numbers, as there was in the 1970's.

That's about as far as I get with this "analysis:" identifying a key difference between now and 1973. President Obama seems to have internalized this political style and has learned that it's better not to offer any explanations for unconstitutional actions, since the Senators and Representatives don't really raise the point themselves. Any legislative action, such as the brief flurry of harrumphing over the violation of the War Powers Resolution involved in the Libyan war (or, if you're old fashioned like me, the violation of the Constitutional provision regarding the exclusive right of the Congress to declare war), quickly blows over and MediaWorld is on to the next big thing before any damage registers.

I suppose what this really means is that Cheney's concept of the "Unitary Executive," or Nixon's claim that "if the President does it, then it's not illegal," has become the new reality. I suppose that Obama is aware of the federal statutes and Constitutional provisions which he violates, but with no Congressional oversight or restraint, the only remaining criterion for decision is how well his actions will play on the campaign trail. In this regard, I'm sure he's right in his appraisals. Whacking a Muslim troublemaker who records anti-American screeds, as Anwar al-Alaki did, puts the defenders of Due Process into something of a box - are you trying to protect America's enemies? The response, that the defense of a Constitutional principle is important so that we remain a government of laws, not men, sounds weak and insipid compared to the macho action of blowing a terrorist sky-high with a Predator drone.

Congress has bought into the same approach; it's easier, the imagery is better, it doesn't involve complicated legal theory, it plays better to a voting populace with attention deficit disorder on a mass scale. One way or the other, it's the way we've drifted, and I guess we'll find out, in the fullness of time, where it all leads.

October 02, 2011

Subjective Due Process

Our amiable, enigmatic President made good on one of his new "policies" recently and assassinated an American citizen, Anwar al-Alwaki, in Yemen, dispatching him and some other people by means of a Predator drone strike. Technically speaking, prima facie as we say, this presents a Constitutional problem. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights) provides that

"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
Notice that the Founding Fathers were pretty practical guys. They didn't say you could never off a traitor, with or without a lot of legal rigmarole, serving in the armed forces if he were to betray his fellows to the enemy in the heat of battle, for instance. This exception does not apply to the "Muslim cleric" (otherwise known as an American citizen), however. He would seem to fall into the general category of "person."

Except for the chronic malcontents, liberal bloggers and the like, no one seems terribly troubled about Awlaki's assassination outside of the Muslim community. I watched Bill Maher Friday night and Bill and most of his guests, which included Salman Rushdie and the former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm (who has accepted a teaching post at John Yoo University in Berkeley), were all fired up about this latest display of vicarious macho by the O Man. Maher loves the difficulties this sort of behavior presents to the Neanderthal Republicans: how can the Republicans complain about a guy who puts out hits on American citizens without Due Process?

One guest, Seth MacFarlane, the creator of "Family Guy," was somewhat more circumspect. He pointed out some of the difficulties that might ensue if we go to a system of complete subjective due process where the national leader can have American citizens killed when he feels like it. One difficulty he raised was the idea that this power could fall into the wrong hands, implying, I think, that the power is currently in the right hands and was appropriately used to kill Alwaki. (As Jack Nicholson said in the movie, maybe that's just as good as it gets these days.) MacFarlane asked how we would feel if Michele Bachmann had such a power.

That's a little farfetched. It's farfetched because Michele Bachmann is not going to get elected President. A more realistic hypothetical is to ask how we would feel if Rick Perry got elected. Rick Petty already has an extensive track record of presiding over the state elimination of people, and he's said that the 234 executions in Texas during his governorship do not disturb his sleep at all. He felt good about all of them. We might add to this factor Perry's statement that if Ben Bernanke "printed more money" before the election, and was foolish enough to cross the Red River after doing so, that Texans "would treat [Bernanke] pretty ugly." I assume Perry meant that Bernanke would be shot, because most things in Texas mean someone is going to get shot.

So let's see where we are here. What would be the distinction in principle between Rick Perry's decision to order the assassination of Ben Bernanke and Obama's decision to order the killing of Anwar al-Alwaki? Just to make the quiz easier, I'll give you a clue: there is no distinction. In both cases a President decided that a person posed a threat to the safety and security of the United States. Indeed, Perry's defenders would point to historical precedent, because "debasing the coinage" of the United States was, at times, a capital offense, as mentioned in the Fifth Amendment. Obama's precedent establishes that a President does not have to prove anything in court, or even obtain an indictment, before he orders an American citizen killed. If the "kill warrant" needs some connection to the War on Terror, well hell, President George W. Bush said the entire world was now a battlefield (that's why he could arrest Jose Padilla, an American citizen, in Chicago, and incarcerate him for years without Due Process), the War on Terror never ends, and therefore anything that happens anywhere which (the President thinks) makes the United States weaker or less able to defend itself (such as devaluing its currency) justifies whatever sanction the President feels like meting out.

A reductio ad absurdum? No, not at all. Anyway, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton had far more direct experience with the perils of tyrannical power than the contemporary politicians dealing with this problem, and for that very reason they "instituted laws among men" built on the principle that subjectivity in due process was much too dangerous. It will inevitably be abused, terribly and irrevocably, as those tyrants of 1930's Europe, who built careers out of ruling with subjective brutality, should have convinced everyone once and for all.